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Boris Sidis, Ph.D., M.D.
FEAR AND SUPERSTITION
An individual limited in intelligence, leading a narrow life, is specially subject to fear suggestions which can be easily aroused. Inhibitions of the personal self are produced by stimulation of the fear instinct with consequent easy access, by means of fear suggestions, to man's subconscious fear instinct, thus inducing various forms of morbid mental life.
When a person is limited in his interests, when he is ignorant and full of prejudices and superstitions, his critical, personal sense is embryonic, and the predisposition to fear suggestions is specially pronounced. He easily falls a victim to all kinds of bizarre beliefs and absurd superstitions, such as the mysticism which obsesses uncultured classes of all ages.
The optimistic, "metaphysical" beliefs, rampant in this country, are all due to the beggarly intelligence subconsciously obsessed by innumerable fear suggestions. Neurotic adherents cling to their irrational optimism in order to assuage the pangs, caused by the fear instinct, from which they are unable to free themselves.
In the embryonic personality of the child, as well as in the undeveloped or narrowed individuality of the adult, the sense of the strange, of the unknown, and of the mysterious, is apt to arouse the fear instinct. In fact, the unfamiliar arouses the fear instinct even in the more highly organized mind.
"Any new uncertainty," says Bain, "is especially the cause of terror. Such are the terrors caused by epidemics, the apprehensions from an unexperienced illness, the feeling of a recruit under fire. The mental system in infancy is highly susceptible, not merely to pain, but to shocks and surprises. Any great excitement has a perturbing effect allied to fear. After the child has contracted a familiarity with the persons and things around it, it manifests unequivocal fear on the occurrence of anything strange. The grasp of an unknown person often gives a fright. This early experience resembles the manifestations habitual to the inferior animals."
In another place Bain rightly says, "Our position in the world contains the sources of fear. The vast powers of nature dispose of our lives and happiness with irresistible might and awful aspect. Ages had elapsed ere the knowledge of law and uniformity prevailing among those powers was arrived at by the human intellect. The profound ignorance of the primitive man was the soil wherein his early conceptions and theories sprang up; and the fear inseparable from ignorance gave them their character. The essence of susperstition is expressed by the definition of fear."
Compayré, in speaking of the fear of the child, says, "In his limited experience of evil, by a natural generalization, he suspects danger everywhere like a sick person whose aching body dreads in advance every motion and every contact. He feels that there is a danger everywhere, behind the things that he cannot understand, because they do not fit in with his experience.
"The observations collected by Romanes in his interesting studies on the intelligence of animals throw much light on this question; they prove that dogs, for instance, do not fear this or that, except as they are ignorant of the cause. A dog was very much terrified one day when he heard a rumbling like thunder produced by throwing apples on the floor of the garret; he seemed to understand the cause of the noise as soon as he was taken to the garret, and became as quiet and happy as ever.
"Another dog had a habit of playing with dry bones. One day Romanes attached a fine thread which could hardly be seen, to one of the bones, and while the dog was playing with it, drew it slowly towards him; the dog recoiled in terror from the bone, which seemed to be moving of its own accord. So skittish horses show fright as long as the cause of the noise that frightens them remains unknown and invisible to them.
"It is the same with the child. When in the presence of all the things around him, of which he has no idea, these sounding objects, these forms, these movements, whose cause he does not divine, he is naturally a prey to vague fears. He is just what we should be, if chance should cast us suddenly into an unexplored country before strange objects and strange beings―suspicious, always on the qui vive, disposed to see imaginary enemies behind every bush, fearing a new danger at every turn in the road."
Similarly, Sully says, "The timidity of childhood is seen in the readiness with which experience invests objects and places with a fear-exciting aspect, in its tendency to look at all that is unknown as terrifying, and in the difficulty of the educator in controlling these tendencies."
Sully is right in thinking that education tends greatly to reduce the early intensity of fear. "This it does by substituting knowledge for ignorance, and so undermining that vague terror before the unknown to which the child and the superstitious savage are a prey, an effect aided by the growth of will power and the attitude of self-confidence which this brings with it." An uncultivated personality with a limited mental horizon, with a narrow range of interests, a personality trained in the fear of mysterious agencies, is a fit subject for obsessions.
In certain types of functional psychosis and neurosis the patient has an inkling of the fear instinct in his dread of objects, or of states of mind, lack of confidence, blushing, expectations of some coming misfortune and some mysterious evil, but he is not aware of the fear instinct as developed in him by the events and training of early childhood. The fears of early childhood are subconscious. At any rate, the patient does not connect them with his present mental affection.
In other types of psychopathic affections the patient is entirely unaware of the whole situation, he is engrossed by the symptoms which he regards as the sum and substance of his trouble; the fear is entirely subconscious. Frights, scares, dread of sickness, instructions associated with fear of the mysterious and unseen, injunctions with fear of punishment or failure in moral standards, enforcement of social customs with dread of failure and degradation,―all go to the cultivation of the fear instinct which in later life becomes manifested as functional psychosis or neurosis.
Functional psychosis is an obsession, conscious and subconscious, of the fear instinct. Thus one of my patients became obsessed with fear of tuberculosis, manifesting most of the symptoms of "consumption," after a visit to a tubercular friend. Another patient was obsessed by the fear of death after visiting a sick relative of his in one of the city hospitals. Another became obsessed with the fear of syphilis after having been in contact with a friend who had been under antiluetic treatment. Still another of my patients, in addition to the fear of darkness, became obsessed with the fear of stars, and also with a fear of comets, regarded by some people as poisoning the air with noxious gases.
In all such cases anxiety and dread were present, but in none of the patients have I found an insight into the real state of the mind. In all of them the fear was traced to early childhood, to early experiences of the fear instinct, fostered and fortified by unfavorable conditions. In all of those fears there was a long history of a well-developed subconscious fear instinct.
I may assert without hesitation that in all my cases of functional psychosis, I find the presence of the fear instinct to be the sole cause of the malady. Take away the fear and the psychosis or neurosis disappears.
The fear instinct arises from the impulse of self-preservation without which animal life cannot exist. The fear instinct is one of the most primitive and most fundamental of all instincts. Neither hunger, nor sex, nor maternal instinct, nor social instinct can compare with the potency of the fear instinct, rooted as it is in self-preservation,―the condition of life primordial.
When the instinct of fear is at its height, it sweeps before it all other instincts. Nothing can withstand a panic. Functional psychosis in its full development is essentially a panic,―it is the emergence of the most powerful of all instincts, the fear instinct.
Functional psychosis or neurosis is a veiled form of the fear of death, of destruction, of loss of what is deemed as essential to life, of fear of some unknown, impending evil. How many times has it fallen to my share to soothe and counteract the fear instinct of panic-stricken psychopathic patients! A psychogenetic examination of every case of functional psychosis brings one invariably to the fundamental fear instinct.
Conflicts, repressions, imperfections, sex-complexes, sex-aberrations, and others do not produce psychopathic symptoms or neurotic states. It is only when mental states become associated with an exaggerated impulse of self-preservation and an intensified fear instinct that neurosis arises.
A close study of every neurotic case clearly discloses the primary action of those two important factors of life activity,―self-preservation and fear instinct.
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